yoga teacher hustle: the class divide in the yoga world

Are these Occupy Yogis meditating for a better world? Or for better working conditions for yoga teachers? (image via Occupy Yoga NYC Facebook page)

It’s appropriate that on May Day, as hundreds of thousands of people across the world filled the streets, demanding better working conditions, greater job security and improved quality of life, GOOD should publish a post about the cold, hard reality of teaching yoga.

In the article, Making It As a Yoga Teacher: Not As Zen As You Think, actor and writer Sue Smith details her short-lived career as a yoga teacher. She explained that after seven years of practice, she decided to teach yoga to get out of the restaurant industry. She wanted to teach yoga because:

I envied my yoga teachers, who seemed to be these rich, serene deities who lived in pajamas and had legions of followers. I wanted that life. I mean, sweatpants to work? (I’d sworn off khakis and blazers my first year out of college.) My childhood goal was to become a known philosopher. To me, yoga seemed like a perfect, zen way out of my grueling server lifestyle.

I was wrong. Turns out teaching yoga is just another service job.

Which is true. Service is at the heart of yoga. While it’s possible to teach yoga and be of service outside of the service industry, the reality of life is that yoga is a $5.7 billion dollar industry in North America. As such, yoga teachers are subject to the poor working conditions and low wages seen in many other service jobs.

The article is a bit of a rant, and it’s clear that Smith was not born to be a yoga teacher. That’s why she was disappointed that teaching yoga wasn’t the shiny, easy, “zen” work experience she’d been hoping for while she developed her acting and comedy career. However, what Smith does is point out and articulate the very real class divide in the yoga world.

Because competition is so fierce, most new teachers will teach anywhere they can, and pay can be low if it exists at all. Startups and new places generally pay their teachers on a “bringer” basis: the teacher may have a base rate of five to 10 dollars, and then earn two to five dollars per student…

The established places, meanwhile, make bank. In New York City, most studios charge upward of $20 for drop-in classes—$26 at the studio where I studied. Many studios can hold at least 20 students, which can translate $400 for the studio for a full class. But the teachers only see a fraction of that cash. These studios will pay their teachers $25 to $30 per class, sometimes slightly more if the teachers have been there for several years. Chain gyms like 24-Hour Fitness are the more desirable gigs because they start their teachers off at $50 per class and offer benefits. Pure Yoga, an offshoot of Equinox, pays an unheard-of $80 per class.

If you teach yoga, how do you feel about the working conditions and wages of your chosen profession? Do you suck it up and live in poverty, or do you have an entrepreneurial spirit?

  1. Alright, I’ll ‘dive in!’

    1. Zen is fucking HARD!!!!! Despite the word being used for all sorts of stoopid products in order to project some kind of ‘chilled-out’ attitude, real zen practice is some of the hardest work I’ve ever done! In other words, it ain’t no SPA!

    2. Yeah, asana teachers probably SHOULD be in a position to earn better pay, but yoga teachers should also know that this gig IS a service gig in the best possible sense of the word: seva anyone?

    Years ago, a woman called me up to ask me about teaching yoga as a change of career. She was in some corporate line of work and wanted to ask me all sorts of business related questions about the ‘career’ of yoga-teaching. I stopped her short by telling her teaching Yoga — as opposed to asana — is a calling (vocation) for me, at least, and I would strongly suggest she look into some other field if she wanted a new career path.

    I really fucked with her mind when I told her that — at the time — I had been teaching full-time for about 8 years and I was still only making about 1/3 I had made 8 years earlier working 3 shifts a week as a bartender at a very trendy Manhattan bar!

    Oh, and now after 15 years, I’m up to making just about 1/2 what I made back then!!!!

    3. Knowing some folk with studios in NYC, I KNOW the incredibly expensive overhead they’ve got. Interestingly, when folk see 20 people in a class generating $400, they tend to forget the classes where there are 6 people as well as forgetting that the studio ain’t banking the whole $400 anyway! NYC rents???? Utilities???? Taxes????

    So, that’s my rant for the day….. Probably has something to do with the baby having a melt-down before falling dead asleep!

  2. Oooops! Didn’t really answer your questions, though, did I?

    Now, I’d have to say I LOVE the working conditions:

    1. I meet awesome people (you, Roseanne just one example)
    2. I have been invited to teach at places I could never have afforded to visit or vacation in.
    3. I make my own hours.
    4. As an Independent Contractor (like most yoga teachers), I have an autonomy many of my students — who make more money then I do working ‘real jobs’ envy.

    I’m not rich financially, not by a long shot, but I’m not poor either, so I am rich in happiness, love, community…… things I was rather poor in when bar tending or working for Merrill Lynch many, many years ago!

  3. I thought the article sounded bitter and angry, though I do get that she was frustrated. Oh well, luckily there was something else for her to move onto! Yoga teaching isn’t for everyone…

    I love teaching, but I know I can’t rely on it to make enough money to live in Sydney, which is up there with NY as a ridiculously expensive place to live. I’m still pursuing another career, as a lawyer (not there yet) but my teaching feels like a creative outlet and a chance to give back. My yoga practice has given me so much peace, I love the opportunity to share this with others.

    Sure, teachers will struggle to make enough to survive. Sure, some will make it big and earn more. Such is life. If you enter the world of teaching to make money, then forgive me if I sound naive and idealistic, but you’re in the wrong game for the wrong reason…

  4. We were just talking about this at our Coffee and Yoga.

    I would say that although it’s important to be realistic, poor working conditions in any sense of the term in North America just isn’t ok. If you make below minimum wage… that’s a problem (we have government set minimum wages for a reason- slave labour anyone?).

    Just because it’s harder, or that you suffer more while you do it, doesn’t make you somehow a better or more qualified teacher. Martyrdom was never a qualification to be a yoga teacher. You can establish seva in your practice through lots of different ways outside of ‘work’ (i.e. offering to teach a yoga in the park! or at a shelter etc).

    As an employeur, (and I would think that Yoga Studio Employeurs should actually have the moral and ethical standards of their profession, as naive as that sounds), they have a minimum responsibility to make the working environment of their employees a fair and safe place.

    I think this is where the ‘spiritual’ aspect of yoga becomes entangled with business and profession.

    I actually don’t attend certain studios because I know they treat their yoga teachers like crap. No thank you- I would rather value my teachers.

    • (just to clarify, poor working conditions is not ok anywhere…. and when I refer to ‘poor’ I also refer to other concerns beyond pay scale, but including low pay).

  5. Yes, that article was a bit ranty, but she has a point for sure. I think the model for yoga teachers is pretty messed up. Like you mentioned above, even at the “good” studios, teaches don’t get a huge cut. I have colleagues that teach up to fifteen classes a week (and I’m sure there are others who teach even more!). I know for me, personally, that is never going to be sustainable. I need more recharge time to be at my best teaching group classes. I’ll never be rolling in the dough teaching 7 classes a week. There has to be a better way for teachers to reach people and still have a reasonable, living wage.

  6. First off, I just wanted to say two things:

    1. Roseanne we don’t know each other personally but I want you to know that I really, REALLY appreciate your blog and your always intelligent, thoughtful and relevant posts! Thank you for what you offer to the online yoga community & keep up the great work!

    2. I also really enjoyed reading the thoughtful comments to this piece, posted above here!

    As for me, I am a yoga teacher AND a relatively new entrepreneur… I run a “mobile yoga studio” in Toronto, Canada. I have a team of extensively trained teachers (all of whom possess hundreds of hours more than the mere 200hr “basic teacher training”, in a wide variety of different yoga “styles”) and I send them out to teach genuinely customized classes to individuals, families, groups of friends or neighbours, colleagues, etc in their own locations (mainly people’s homes & workplaces). This was my solution to avoiding the high overhead costs of opening a studio with a physical location, as well as my attempt to make yoga more accessible to those who just don’t see themselves ever making in to a yoga studio…

    With regards to my teachers, let me say this: My teachers are THE single most important and greatest asset to my business. I value them more than gold, and wish I could pay them in heaps of gold. Instead I have come up with what I believe is a fair (though not extravagantly high – my policy of “accessible” yoga must include offering fair & reasonable rates to my clients after all) hourly rate of pay and some innovative incentives that I don’t believe are being offered by any other yoga studio that I’ve heard of…

    Inspired by some of the business practices outlined in a great book that I read called “Small Giants: Companies that choose to be great instead of big” by Bo Burlingham, I have developed a policy of “subsidized ongoing training” for my teachers. That is to say that for every class they teach for me they earn an extra amount of $ that I keep and set aside for them. Once they have been with the company (shameless self promotion here, we are Go Yoga Inc – then they can decide to use whatever funds they have accrued with me to put towards any yoga-related training or professional development. Not only is this my way of saying thank you to my teachers for their loyalty and recognizing them for the INCREDIBLE ASSET that they are to my business, but this is also a way for me to ensure that I really do have some of the most skilled and highly trained teachers in the city, because I subsidize their training. I also offer small commission incentives for any teacher who brings a new client to Go Yoga.

    Having worked for years and years as a contracted teacher (both as a yoga teacher, and also as a dance and drama instructor to children and youth) I am well aware of how many hours go in to working that one hour teaching gig… From class planning to the commute, so even though I can’t pay my teachers the HIGHEST rate (it’s certainly not the lowest though!), what I can and do do, is demonstrate to them on a regular basis how much I value and respect them.

    Sometimes, in my experience at least, a little respect is worth even MORE than an extra $5 or $10 an hour…

  7. Thanks for your always-thoughtful response to this article. I found it to be a bit of a rant, and as you point out, if the author thought teaching yoga was going to be a relaxed, easy way to earn a living, she was clearly naive. I especially scratched my head at her complaint about *having* to wear expensive Lululemon pants. No one *has* to wear Lululemon pants. There are plenty of less expensive, non-sweatshop alternatives out there.

    I’ve been teaching since 1986. Most of that time, I’ve had a full- or part-time job to supplement my income. I was able to make it just teaching yoga—living very simply—for the 10 years preceding the yoga boom, until the proliferation of new studios and younger teachers teaching trendier yoga styles eclipsed those of us who had been teaching independently.

    I still prefer to teach independently in a rented space in a karate dojo. I can teach fewer, smaller classes and still make more than if I was teaching tons of classes to hoards in the studios. Because I prefer to get to know my students, and like to be able to give everyone quality attention during the course of a class, this just works better for me.

    I’ve never thought that teaching yoga was going to make me rich or famous. All along it’s been my passion for the practice (yoga and meditation) and the long-term community of amazing people that has formed around my classes that has kept me going.

    I do understand the bitterness of the blog however, and I think it has sparked a lively and important discussion. But it seems that the glam, cliche aspects of modern yoga have painted a rather inaccurate picture of the life of a yoga teacher. If you go into yoga teaching thinking it’s going to make you rich and famous, you’re likely to be disappointed. (Same if you go into music with that intention!) If, on the other hand, you approach teaching as an act of generosity, you will likely enjoy a richness you can’t imagine.

    The other thing that the article has brought up for me is this question: What other profession allows you to make a good living with only 200 to 500 hours of training? IMO, 200 to 500 hours of training barely gets one started down the path. It takes years of dedicated practice to understand the depth and breadth of Yoga. And once you do understand it, you realize it’s not about money, power and fame.

  8. the original article was ranty but brought up good points. and I agree with Charlotte’s comment. and I agree about yoga teaching ultimately being a service, i.e. ,seva, whether you get paid the big bucks or not.

    however, in business, there is the concept of “perceived value” and unfortunately, many times, yoga (in my case, private yoga) is not seen as having “value” $$$-wise in the same way as a massage, physical therapy, or acupuncture. Many people I know have no problem laying down $100 for a 60 minute massage (or to get their hair done), but $100 for a private, one on one yoga therapy class? No way, even tho they are going to a massage therapist AND an acupuncturist to deal with the same thing I could tell them how to deal with via yoga/pranayama/meditation.

    The people who place the most “value” on yoga are the women I teach for free at a domestic violence shelter.

    • I agree with you, Linda. In so many ways yoga’s popularity has devalued it in the eyes of the mainstream. IMO much of the misperception of value stems from the fact that so many people can now practice yoga at their health club without having to pay extra for the classes, cheap intro offers at studios, free community classes offered by the likes of Lululemon. A teacher I know says that there are lots of people who go from one free intro class to the next and rarely pay for a class.

  9. Did she rant a bit? Um, maybe. But I really do think she had lots of valid points even if many of them were ones we already knew. let’s face it, anyone who went into teaching yoga to buy a Bentley like Bikram is probably going to be disappointed. In truth it is a service industry and we do it because we love it.

    What rung true most for me was the need to teach a ton of classes to feel like you are making a living and not having time to practice yourself. I think this is the biggest issue we yoga teachers need to address because it is VERY hard to be authentic teaching yoga when you are not living yoga. you cannot teach what you don’t practice.

    I struggle with this every day as there is so little free time for me and because I teach when there is usually a class I can take. My elves (furry and not) tend to suck up the times when I am not teaching.

    thanks for the deepened discussion R!

  10. It may be rant like, but wagging a finger saying it’s a calling to don’t expect lots of money sidesteps a more important issue to me.

    It’s too easy to begrudge people wages that improve the quality of their lives under the umbrella – it is a calling/service and so money shouldn’t matter.

    I used to spend considerable time involved with different social justice groups and routinely saw how that thinking lead to underpaying and overworking folks. These people came fired up and passionate about making a difference and being in service, ultimately to be used up, burned out and discarded. (Including in one group that rationalized it to the point that they could raise their own salaries in addition to doing the work.)

    Personally, I’d like to turn it around and say because people are in service they deserve more, not less. 🙂

    Just my insane .02

    • Thanks for your input. As a musician and yoga teacher, I do agree with what you’re saying. When I get paid well for a musical gig, people will say things like, “Wow, that’s great for playing for an hour and a half!” Of course, they’re not taking into account the many hours of rehearsals that precede every gig, let alone the years of practice that brought me to the point where I could perform, and the hours I still commit to practice in order to stay in shape.

      The same is true for yoga. Just because we love our vocation doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be paid for it. After 26 years of teaching, I would LOVE to not have to have another job. It would be wonderful not to have to work as hard as I do. But the reality of teaching yoga—especially these days when the market is glutted with so many undertrained teachers—is that yoga teaching has become undervalued. If I didn’t love it, and see it as a calling, I definitely wouldn’t be doing it!

      Before the yoga boom, the standard split for teaching at a studio was 50/50. This was a reasonable arrangement. The split these days is really unfair. That is why I teach independently. After committing 30 years to practicing and studying yoga, I just can’t teach for $1 per student.

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